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Interpreting Common Dog Behaviors & the Meaning Behind His Moods

Jack Russell Terrier and small black and white dog dig in the sand at the beach.

Your pup's actions tell you a lot about his mood. And although you may not be fluent in the canine tongue–short of what it means when it salivates–you do need to learn how to interpret dog behavior. Have you ever witnessed your dog licking certain textures or circling the same spot in front of you? There are many reasons a specific dog state of mind or health concern may cause him to do these things. Once you pay attention to his behavior, you'll be able to help him.

1. Bad Breath

Dogs aren't known for having wonderfully minty breath, but if you notice a marked change with even a little halitosis, it might be time to take a trip to the veterinarian. There could be something wrong with your dog's oral health.

A change in the smell of your dog's breath may also be a cause for concern with respect to his gastrointestinal tract, liver, or kidneys. If your dog's breath smells of urine, for instance, he could have a kidney problem. Sweet-smelling breath is a sign to vets that your dog may have diabetes (especially if he's drinking more water and urinating more often). His overall dog mood may appear happy, but if his breath has changed, pay attention - let your veterinarian know.

2. Biting

Puppies may nip at you as they learn how to communicate with their pet parents. This usually happens while playing, as young dogs often communicate with their mouths when they interact. It may also happen during training, or for simply no reason you can identify. If your young one is nipping regularly, though, it's important to stop it before it develops into a more problematic dog behavior down the line.

Dogs bite out of anxiety, fear, or aggression. Can you identify which is motivating your pet to do so? Is his mood influencing his actions? If you're having trouble teaching your dog not to bite, consider working with a professional trainer, or better yet, a veterinary behaviorist. Your veterinarian should be able to recommend one for you.

3. Circling

Dogs who can't stop walking in circles may have a health issue. Yes, sometimes it's fun to chase your tail, but if your pup can't shake the compulsion, there's a problem beneath the surface. Ear infections may cause circling, but compulsive tail chasing may occur with bull terriers

Of course there may be other reasons your buddy is circling. Older dogs may suffer from idiopathic vestibular syndrome, and, not to alarm you, but all dogs are at risk for poisoning or a brain tumor. Only your vet can determine the cause of your dog's circling, so get him in for a checkup.

4. Digging

Dogs dig in the ground for many reasons: to escape, to track animals, to make a cool spot to lie, or to hide something important to them. However, some dogs "dig" inside as well. Have you ever noticed your dog scratching at the blankets or couch in order to find the perfect place to lie down? This dog behavior happens most often at night and during nap times, and it is completely normal.

If your dog's digging starts to bother you, or damage your furniture, consider working with a professional trainer to reduce this stubborn habit.

5. Eating poop

Dogs eat feces for many reasons; it can be a normal (while distasteful to us) dog behavior. Young dogs may watch their mother clean them (who ingests feces as a result), and mimic her. Fear may even cause your dog to eat feces if he's afraid of the repercussions. Then again, your dog may just be curious. He may smell certain scents in the feces and wonder what it tastes like.

Eating poop can also be an instinctive solution to a nutritional deficiency. Make sure you feed your dog a well-balanced food like Hill's™ Ideal Balance™, so you can completely rule out malnutrition as a reason for his eating waste. Contact your veterinarian especially if your dog is losing weight as well.

6. Head Pressing

If you notice your dog pressing his head against the wall or another firm object, there's a need for your immediate attention. Head pressing is a common sign of numerous serious problems, such as toxic poisoning or brain disease. Make an appointment with your dog's vet right away.

7. Panting

Dogs expel most of their body heat from their mouths. When your dog pants, he's probably too warm, so he is regulating his body temperature. However, it's important to pay attention to panting, as he may do it when in pain as well. Help your pal regulate his temperature and make sure he's well hydrated before any physical activity–especially as the weather warms up. If your dog was injured, get him to the vet immediately. Some other health problems may also show increased panting as a sign, so if you have a question, don't hesitate to contact your vet.

8. Sitting on Your Feet or Between Your Legs

This is often mistaken for possessive behavior, but is most often a sign of anxiety or nervousness. "Dominance" is rarely the problem; your dog is probably trying to feel safer by staying close.

Yellow lab puppy sitting at owner's feet on a leash

Anxiety is often more than a dog trainer is qualified to help with so discuss the behavior with your veterinarian and see if your dog would benefit from a referral to a veterinary behavior specialist.

9. Scooting

Have you ever watched your dog drag himself across the floor . . . with his bottom on the ground? It may seem funny (or kind of disgusting). But it is also called scooting, and it means there's something irritating your dog's anus. It's possible that your pup's anal sacs are full and need to be expressed.

If your dog's anal sacs aren't backed up, the problem could be irritation for some other reason. Allergies may only show up as an itchy rear. While it's common to blame worms, it is an uncommon reason for the behavior. Check with your veterinarian to be sure your pal is on an appropriate parasite prevention program.

Finally, a dog who's a grass-eater, or likes to lick around the house, could have strands of grass or hair trapped in his anus that he's rubbing the ground to get out. This is the least-severe reason for scooting but the easiest for you to help him take care of.

10. Urinating

If your dog is house trained, it may come as a surprise if you see him urinating in your home. Dog behavior doesn't usually change without reason. Formerly reliable dogs who suddenly begin urinating inside need your attention! This is a sign that something may be very wrong with your furry friend, and when he relieves himself frequently–even if he is in the correct location–it can be a sign of a urinary tract, bladder, or kidney infection. In an older dog, it may even be a sign of dementia.

11. Yawning

American Staffordshire terrier puppy, white with black eye patch, yawns sitting on wooden boards

Although you might think he needs some sleep, a dog yawn doesn't usually mean he's tired. He may be interested in napping, but he could also be showing a sign of fear or stress. If your dog appears to yawn at an increased rate around a new person, don't rush the introduction. He's either picking up vibes he doesn't feel comfortable with, or is fearful for a less-obvious reason. No matter what the case, a forced introduction isn't a good idea.

12. Anxiety Shows in Many Ways

Signs of anxiety include shaking, tail tucking, escapist behavior, defecating in the home, biting or injuring himself, barking, and many more, according to PetMD.

Because they're technically pack animals, your dog may become fearful when left alone. If separation anxiety is a chronic issue for your dog, you'll both need to learn how to create a relaxing environment when you leave the house. Consider taking your dog for a long walk or play a rigorous game of fetch in your backyard to tire him out before you go. Don't make a big deal out of your departure, either. If you're still having trouble with separation anxiety, consider involving a professional who can work on behavioral training.

If your dog is experiencing any of these behaviors, and it's not normal for him, don't hesitate to make an appointment with his vet to rule out any systemic medical issues. Your once social, extremely energetic dog won't suddenly become lethargic and withdrawn. If he does, he's asking for some help.

Contributor Bio

Erin Ollila

Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform, and even transform its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Twitter @ReinventingErin or learn more about her at http://erinollila.com.

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